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Large NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study Finds Red Meat And Associated Compounds Increase Risk Of Death From Multiple Causes

The evidence keeps accumulating to indicate the consumption of red meat is associated with a higher risk of death. In the latest study from NIH published in the British Medical Journal on May 9, NIH epidemiologist Arash Etemadi and colleagues found that persons in the highest quintile of red meat consumption had a 26% increased risk of all cause mortality compared with the lowest quintile. Cause specific deaths were higher for nine major causes of death. Both processed and unprocessed red meat were implicated whereas white meat consumption was associated with a lower risk of all cause mortality.

The population based cohort study was impressive for its large size with over half a million participants and a 16 year follow up.

Writing in a conclusion to their paper, the authors note “This is the largest study, so far, to show increased mortality risks from different causes associated with consuming both processed and unprocessed red meat, and it underlines the importance of heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in assessing the pathways related to health risks associated with red meat intake. Our findings also show reduced risks associated with substituting white meat (poultry and fish) particularly unprocessed white meat.”

In a notable awareness-raising commentary, Massey University epidemiologist John Potter told BMJ readers that red and processed meats are likely to be harmful to human health in many different ways and simply focusing on one or two of these outcomes in not helpful in creating prevention strategies. According to Potter, “It feels like an old fashioned murder mystery with too many suspects. The important conclusion is that the current patterns of consumption of red and processed meat are not good for humans.”

He lays out why overconsumption of meat is bad for the planet as well, and cites the late Australian epidemiologist Tony McMichael to indicate that “research even provides clear underpinnings for evidence based policy that could limit harm to both [health and the planet] but these underpinnings are not linked to action.” According to the BMJ editor, the latest report confronts doctors and society with “another inconvenient truth” and suggests that the health profession could lead by example as it did with smoking cessation. ■

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